Tim O'Malley: Irish fans are frustrated because the rushing attack that carried Notre Dame through the final two months of 2012 has yet to make an appearance this fall. Rees is a solid, veteran quarterback that riddles poor defenses, but he needs help to beat talented teams, and the running game -- still unsettled with three juniors vying for time and two freshman 'backs waiting in the wings -- hasn't played to its pre-season projections.
The absence of Golson is huge: every 3rd and 3 or longer situation serves as a stark reminder that there's no longer a quarterback that can use his legs when the pocket collapses to earn a cheap first down. Golson became the offense's second-best playmaker late last season (behind only his favorite target Tyler Eifert), and though the 2013 crew technically averages one more point per game than did their predecessors, there's no rhyme or reason to the attack.
To be kind, Notre Dame's offense finds itself pending the talent level and scheme of its foe. To be blunt (and to quote Lou Holtz circa 1989) they're grab-bagging.
2. Is there a difference at all in how Louis Nix III is playing this season? Has he been as good as advertised?
TO: In terms of production through four games -- 16 tackles, 3.5 for loss in 2012 vs. 14 and 1 TFL in 2012 -- Nix isn't far behind. And he still occupies two offensive linemen on most snaps, the alternative being an extra backfield member for the opposing offense (be it an overwhelmed center or guard) when he's granted solo blocking opportunities. But the 4-0 Irish of 2012 has yielded just two touchdowns over the season's first four games (and first six games, to be accurate). The 2013 defense has surrendered more touchdowns (10) than the 2012 defense did through it's entire 12-game regular season slate (9). Nix isn't the reason for the drop-off, but nothing about Notre Dame's defense has been as advertised to date.
3. Who is poised for a breakout game against the Sooners?
TO: The fact that this is a difficult question to answer serves as a microcosm of Notre Dame's offense to date: Who'll play a key role this week? Will it be junior and future pro DaVaris Daniels, a dominant player in Game One and Game Three, who no-showed in Game Four? Will it be 6'6" 270-pound tight end Troy Niklas, a major component in the passing game in Ann Arbor but a player with two catches since? Is running back Cam McDaniel going to finally carry the football throughout the contest rather than acting as the team's "closer" in the fourth quarter?
The only player I guarantee shows up for the offense is senior T.J. Jones. Win or lose, he'll make an impact.
4. Every team loses players, but who has been the one guy on defense that Notre Dame has had a tough time replacing from last year's group not named Manti Te'o?
TO:Any Irish fan that changed his or her opinion of Te'o due to the off-seasons unending silliness regarding his undead girlfriend has likely since change their tune: the kid could play (and lead, both by example and his demeanor) and his absence has crippled aspects of the present Irish defense.
But senior safety Zeke Motta is missed as well. On a 2012 team full of top-notch defenders that played hard on every snap, Motta was the outlier -- a senior that played hard well past the echo of the whistle. He hit players off the ball. He talked trash. He hammered receivers after the catch. He served as an extra linebacker vs. power teams yet was the last line of defense -- the field safety -- on a defense that never allowed a passing touchdown in excess of 25 yards.
Notre Dame's back seven misses not only his talent and veteran leadership, but his no-nonsense, chip-on-the-shoulder approach as well.
5. ND is 3-1, ranked in the top 25, but everybody seems to be down on the Irish. Is Notre Dame still searching to find itself, or are the Irish just having to take a half step back after an incredible 2012?
Nine touchdowns allowed in a 12-game regular season. Five wins at home by a touchdown or less. A Heisman runner-up finish from a middle linebacker. Unranked to undefeated. It might not get better than that for modern Notre Dame fans, all of them reeling since Alabama put a country beat down on their Irish when it mattered most.
But regarding the uneven season to date: Most knowledgable, long-time football fans understand, things are rarely as good, or as bad, as they seem. The 12-0 Irish of 2012 played terribly in a 20-17 win over Purdue. Yet one week later, they hammered favored, No. 10 Michigan State in East Lansing. After scoring 30 in Norman in a seismic, college-landscape shifting upset, Notre Dame struggled to put a touchdown on the board through 40 minutes vs. lowly Pittsburgh and needed three overtimes to subdue a team that lost by 14 to Youngstown State.
One of the next three Irish foes: Oklahoma, Arizona State, or USC, is going to catch Notre Dame at its worst, and a head-shaking loss will be the result. But one from that trio is going to run into a buzz saw as well.
Your guess is as good as mine.